White Teachers Need to Talk About Racism
How and why you need to be addressing racism and other discrimination in your classroom — even when you haven’t experienced it yourself.
I taught at a small 7th-12th grade charter school in southwest Phoenix. The area is racially diverse: around 25% of the town is white, non-white Hispanics make up almost half the population. On our campus, that diversity was reflected. I taught six classes, and in five of those six classes, white students were the minority, and for one of my classes, there were exactly two white people in the room: one student and me.
If you teach teens, then you know that they are not afraid of asking difficult questions, and questions about racism came up often, particularly in 2016 and early 2017.
I want to be very clear here, from the beginning: I’ve never been, and will never be, a victim of racism. Discrimination, sure. But not racism. Racism is the systemic oppression of a certain group of people, and while I have felt socially ostracized or treated badly because of my skin color on a few occasions, that poor treatment wasn’t upheld by the government, the social order, and the entertainment industry. I was uncomfortable, not oppressed.
So I had to teach about racism from an awkward place: as a member of the oppressing group. Since around 80% of teachers in America are white, I am not alone in this. In order to handle students’ questions and missteps, I had to tread carefully. There were three things I did to prepare myself (and I am still doing all of these; this is an ongoing process).
- I picked up some tips from adult BIPOC friends who were able to tell me what they wished teachers had done when they were in school.
- I watched how students reacted to each other, how they reacted to certain behaviors and statements and questions.
- I read anti-racist literature and listened to anti-racist podcasts.
Here’s what I learned:
1. White teachers need to acknowledge that we have privilege.
Storytime: My students were very worried about me one day; I had pulled into the parking lot with one headlight burnt out. This group of students was all sure I was going to get a ticket or be arrested. One student even texted his older brother, who worked at a local auto parts store, and said they could get that headlight replaced immediately.
I couldn’t understand their panic at first.
But then I remembered that their experiences were different than mine. I looked around at the group that was worried about me — all of them members of racial minority groups. Groups that are targeted by police, groups that are likely to have negative outcomes when interacting with police.
I’m white. I’ll likely never be pulled over for a faulty headlight, and if I am, I’ll likely get a warning if anything. I am reasonably confident that I won’t ever be harassed, searched, pulled from the car, beaten, sexually assaulted, or shot.
Once I realized the disconnect, I told them, with a heavy heart, that their worry was misplaced. I wasn’t in danger. I would be safe in situations that would be dangerous for them.
After a lengthy silence, a tenth grader said quietly, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard a white person admit that before.”
Your students should not get to tenth grade before they hear a white person acknowledge their privilege. Privilege isn’t a bragging point, but there are countless opportunities for every white person in America to just acknowledge that privilege exists. The classroom probably isn’t the place for a large-scale protest (maybe it is, I don’t know your school or district situation), but start by simply facing the fact that you have privilege. Face that fact out loud, in an age-appropriate way. Be honest about why there are so few Black teachers at your school (reduced educational opportunities for Black students to become teachers, lower generational wealth prohibiting young people from pursuing their dreams, racism in the hiring process).
Acknowledge your privilege. It buys you a lot of trust, but it’s also literally the least you can do.
2. White teachers need to call out racism, even if it’s “accidental”.
Children make mistakes.
Children often parrot what their parents have said, or what their peers have said, or what they saw on social media.
If they say something racist, even if you’re sure they picked it up from a TikTok or are just repeating what their parents said, call it out. “Pick a different word, please, that one isn’t nice,” or “That’s unkind,” or “That’s racist,” could all be appropriate responses, depending on the age of your students and the situation.
A high school junior once said that President Obama looked like a monkey, clearly repeating something he’d heard before. I quickly looked him in the eye and said, firmly, “No.” He drew back, surprised, and asked, “Oh… no?” He stayed after class to quickly ask what he had said wrong, and I took less than thirty seconds to explain the racist imagery of comparing Black men to monkeys. The student was aghast, horrified that a family member had said such a thing, and vowed he’d never say something like that again.
It wasn’t a huge deal, and it definitely didn’t erase racism on our campus, but it was a victory anyway. A young man learned that the adults around him could make mistakes, that he didn’t have to perpetuate those mistakes, and that he could be better. He also learned that there was an adult on campus who would teach him gently, without making him feel like garbage as he learned. More importantly: the Black students in the room saw a teacher stand up for them. They didn’t have to ask, and they didn’t have to wonder any longer if I was going to be on their side.
3. White teachers cannot allow BIPOC students to be tormented in the name of “curiosity”.
During the years I taught at this school, there were countless instances of police brutality resulting in the violent deaths of Black people. Many of those instances were caught on video. Often, a student would ask if we could watch the video in class. Sometimes, they hadn’t been allowed to see it at home and they were curious. Sometimes, they disagreed with a friend about what happened in the video and they wanted to settle the debate.
Showing those videos in class with Black students would have been deeply inappropriate. No matter how well-intentioned the request, no matter how important the topic, it wasn’t worthwhile to show the death of a Black man at the hands of the state.
Our Black students have seen the videos. They’ve cried with their parents. They’ve stayed awake all night, worrying. Worse — maybe they’ve lost a family member to police violence.
They do not need you to indulge your white students’ “curiosity” during class.
They do not need to sit and listen debates about what the Confederacy really stood for.
They do not need to humor “innocent” questions about whether or not the Irish were oppressed as badly as the African slaves during America’s early decades.
They do not need to engage in debates with a “devil’s advocate” about whether or not their own Lives Matter.
Your white students don’t get to work through their racism and play mind games at the expense of your BIPOC students’ mental health and emotional well-being. Those white students can ask genuine questions, they can stay after to get clarification, or they can simply be quiet and listen when BIPOC students talk. Learning to shed the behaviors of an oppressor is slow, uncomfortable work that takes time, and our white students need to start that work now, with us as their exemplar.
4. White teachers need to listen when BIPOC students talk about their experiences.
Just as white students can listen to BIPOC students, so can I.
When a young dark-skinned Latino man was late to class because he’d been pulled over and detained while driving his father’s car (deemed “too nice for this neighborhood” by the officer — he actually wrote that on the ticket that the sixteen-year-old received for “failure to signal a turn”), my job was to believe him.
When a young Black woman stomped her foot and snaps at a white, male peer, “You never listen when one of us is talking!”, my job was to believe her.
My job, in both of those instances, was not to play Devil’s Advocate. My job was not to prevaricate and wonder out loud if maybe these young people were blowing things out of proportion or looking for trouble where none existed.
It was my place to let them speak, to listen, and to learn.
As the teacher at the front of the classroom, I had a duty to keep my students safe and on task. I had a duty to listen to them, to learn from them, and to help them learn from each other without inflicting harm. Every white teacher in America has the same duty.
5. White teachers need to advocate for change at the school and district level.
BIPOC teachers have been calling for change for decades. They have suggested anti-racist books and anti-racist curriculum choices. They have defended their right to exist in their workplace and they have endured countless microaggressions (and flat-out aggressions, if we’re being real).
They’re tired. And the powers-that-be aren’t listening anyway.
If you’re white, you need to take up the cause. You need to demand anti-racist dress codes (get your school to delete the stupid rules about dreadlocks and braids, at the very least). You need to demand a more inclusive curriculum, with books by BIPOC authors and performing arts opportunities by BIPOC artists and creators (why do we insist on teaching John Philip Sousa — who was deeply racist — but not the African spirituals that shaped American music for generations?). If you have any flexibility, insert a more diverse and inclusive curriculum into that flexible space.
If every white teacher made these demands, these demands would be met. If eighty percent of teachers were demanding something, it would no longer be up to the 7% of teachers who are Black to demand that we stop teaching To Kill a Mockingbird and instead teach a novel written by a Black author to teach kids about racism in America.